History

The Slave and the Intern

Jefferson's hypocrisy--and Clinton's

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If history isn't quite James Joyce's nightmare from which we cannot awake, it is nonetheless replete with uncomfortable memories from which we can never fully escape. So in a sense, it's not surprising that in the midst of William Jefferson Clinton's presidential sex scandal we should learn of seemingly irrefutable evidence that Thomas Jefferson–the Founder responsible for the most memorable articulation of the American ideal of liberty–fathered at least one child with a slave mistress. Nor is the revelation particularly shocking. It simply adds to the never-in-doubt, scandalous paradox that was Jefferson's life: How could the man who wrote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," himself trade in human flesh?

The conclusion about Jefferson's paternity, reported recently in Nature, is based on DNA samples taken from descendants of the third president and his slave Sally Hemings; genetic tests show that the Sage of Monticello was the father of Hemings' youngest son, Eston, born during Jefferson's second presidential term. While the Nature study settles a longstanding and hotly contested historical matter, it also refocuses the debate over the intersection of public and private morality, a key issue in the current presidential scandal.

"Now, with impeccable timing, Jefferson reappears to remind us of a truth that should be self-evident," argue geneticist Eric S. Lander and historian Joseph J. Ellis in a commentary that also appeared in Nature, "Our heroes–and especially Presidents–are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans, with all of the frailties and imperfections that this entails." A signer of the much-publicized petition urging Congress to halt impeachment proceedings against the president, Ellis, who won a National Book Award last year for The American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, seems particularly interested in undercutting charges against Bill Clinton. As he and Lander write in Nature: "There is a world of difference between a slave and master at the close of the 18th century, and a White House intern and a married man at the end of the 20th."

That there's a gulf separating Jefferson's bedding a slave–who, by law, could not have technically given her consent and certainly could not have withheld it–and Clinton's consensual affair is unquestionable. There's something appallingly flip in the way in which Lander and Ellis invoke such a mismatched parallel.

Jefferson's actions–owning slaves, denying his paternity of them, refusing to manumit all of them even upon his death–are unendingly disturbing by the very standards he articulated in the Declaration, the document which assures his central importance in American political philosophy even as it marks him a moral failure of the first rank. (Apologists who suggest that Jefferson and other Founders felt powerless to dissolve the institution of slavery are being ahistorical: The possibility was widely debated, even in the South, throughout Jefferson's lifetime.)

In fact, knowing the full extent of his relationship with Sally Hemings retroactively doses Jefferson's work with so much grotesque irony that it is almost unreadable. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he argued, "If a parent could find no [other] motive…for restraining intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present." In 1789, he wrote, "To give liberty to, or rather, to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children." In 1809, he categorically declared, "Because Sir Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of…others."

Contrary to Lander and Ellis, the lesson to be drawn from Jefferson's private life goes far deeper than an acknowledgment that our public figures have feet of clay: It is also that–at the very least–we are right to hold our leaders to the standards they themselves set. If Jefferson's private actions are unredeemable, we know that is partly because his Declaration's "laws" are unassailable. Indeed, they helped undergird the moral case against slavery. His hypocritical behavior is hardly beside the point in assessing his character and his place in history. In fact, it's absolutely central to the task.

So, too, with Bill Clinton. The particular "frailties and imperfections" that led to his consensual tryst with Monica Lewinsky are less important ultimately than the gap between his public philosophy and his private life. Elected in the Year of the Woman, and widely (and rightly) hailed for his seemingly egalitarian marriage, he has publicly humiliated his wife; proclaiming that his would be the "most ethical" administration ever, he has engaged in perjurious machinations and other apparent abuses of power, ranging from the inappropriate accessing of FBI files to violating campaign-finance regulations he himself supports.

Given the recent election and the resulting GOP shakeup, it's unlikely that the president will face a serious impeachment probe, much less removal from office. In his last two years, he can focus once again on his "legacy," with which he was reportedly obsessed before l'affaire Lewinsky hit the papers. But Clinton, like Jefferson, will likely find history a much tougher test than the most partisan congressional investigation. And given the incongruity between his beliefs and his actions, he will have no one to blame but himself.